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In our opinion: Rethinking divorce law: recognizing personal, social costs associated with easy divorce

Published: Saturday, July 14 2012 7:18 p.m. MDT

Champions of divorce liberalization had legitimate concerns about spousal abuse and abandonment. Contemporary divorce reform takes such concerns seriously, and supports the need for expedited divorce proceedings in cases where there is domestic violence, abuse, addiction or abandonment. (Shutterstock) Champions of divorce liberalization had legitimate concerns about spousal abuse and abandonment. Contemporary divorce reform takes such concerns seriously, and supports the need for expedited divorce proceedings in cases where there is domestic violence, abuse, addiction or abandonment. (Shutterstock)

"More than any other country," writes Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, "the United States has accepted the idea of no-fault, no-responsibility divorce."

"The United States appears unique among Western countries," says Glendon, "in its relative carelessness about assuring either public or private responsibility for the economic casualties of divorce."

Glendon's acclaimed 1987 book, "Abortion and Divorce in Western Law," explored how permissive standards for divorce undermined the ideal of marriage as a durable, commitment-laden, life-long institution and how discretionary and inconsistently enforced child support laws damaged children.

Twenty-five years later, the casualties of America's permissive divorce laws continue to mount. In today's Deseret News, Sara Israelsen-Hartley explores the high social costs associated with divorce and documents bold efforts underway to make divorce less permissive.

Undoubtedly, family dissolution is emotionally costly to the individuals involved. But University of Minnesota professor Bill Doherty notes, "There's hardly any social problem that the government is involved in and spending a lot of money on that isn't heavily affected by marriages not forming and marriages breaking up."

Children seem to be disproportionately affected by divorce. After conducting several peer-reviewed meta-analyses of the existing data, Professor Paul Amato at the University of Pennsylvania concludes, "children with divorced parents continued to have lower average levels of cognitive, social and emotional well-being, even in a decade in which divorce had become common and widely accepted."

Although the average differences between the children of married parents and divorced parents is modest, it is significant and persistent, so much so that Amato and other scholars believe that interventions discouraging divorce, even slightly, could have enormous positive benefits for large numbers of children.

Consequently, there are now thoughtful efforts underway today to roll back the liberalization of divorce law that occurred in the last half of the 20th century.

Champions of divorce liberalization had legitimate concerns about spousal abuse and abandonment. Contemporary divorce reform takes such concerns seriously, and supports the need for expedited divorce proceedings in cases where there is domestic violence, abuse, addiction or abandonment.

But contemporary divorce reform, recognizing the personal and social costs associated with easy divorce, is attempting to slow down our current system of divorce-on-demand. Contemporary divorce reform would introduce longer waiting periods for divorce accompanied by meaningful education about the challenges of divorce and methods for spousal reconciliation.

Stable families have proven to be the most effective institution for nurturing children, for teaching responsibility and morality, for refining adults and for stabilizing society. But family life is challenging. When society allows families facing inevitable challenges to dissolve easily, it transforms an institution that should be based on life-long connectedness and mutual sacrifice into a mere contract for individual self-fulfillment.

The American legal system's focus on individual choice has provided the framework for our dynamic political and economic institutions. But a free and self-governing people require nurturing within a framework of stable families and communities, where individual rights are correlative with duties and responsibilities.

Consequently, our marriage laws — the laws that provide the foundation for flourishing human families — cannot mimic the transitory, self-interested laws that govern commercial and political life. They must, instead, recognize and protect the basic human needs for connectedness and transcendence.

Accordingly, we strongly support emerging efforts to reform our marriage laws that would downplay the transitory concerns of unfulfilled adults and reinforce the sanctity of marital vows, the gravity of parental stewardship for children, while providing refuge from abuse and abandonment.

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